Champions League with Larne ‘means a lot more’ to Arsenal old boy Mark Randall

By Sports Desk July 10, 2023

Mark Randall believes lining up for Larne on the club’s Champions League debut will top his experiences with Arsenal.

The Irish Premiership champions are set to make history on Wednesday when they begin their two-legged first qualifying round tie against HJK Helsinki in Finland.

Former Gunners midfielder Randall made 13 appearances under Arsene Wenger between 2006 and 2009, including two European outings and a brief cameo in a north London derby against Tottenham.

The 33-year-old trained and played alongside the likes of Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry back then but is now preparing for what he anticipates will be the highlight of his career.

“This will be at the top, I think, because of the achievement for the club and the fans,” he told the PA news agency ahead of the midweek visit to the 10,770-capacity Bolt Arena in Finland’s capital.

“It’s little old Larne but it’s a massive achievement and everyone’s really looking forward to it.

“I think this tops it because at clubs like Arsenal you get that every year but this is such a massive thing for the club and the town.

“It’s not expected over here, especially to have a good run. For me, it means a lot more, competing in that competition for Larne.”

Randall helped Larne claim the Irish Premiership title for the first time in their 134-year history last season.

The former England Under-18 international made his Champions League debut aged 18 in August 2008 when eventual semi-finalists Arsenal defeated FC Twente in the final qualifying round before he appeared in a group stage clash with Porto four months later.

Yet, following just two Premier League substitute appearances for the Gunners and a handful of loan spells, he moved on to Chesterfield in 2011 before arriving on Northern Ireland’s east coast via stints with Italian side Ascoli, MK Dons, Barnet, Newport, Crawley and Hemel Hempstead.

Randall is loving life in County Antrim after being tempted over by the vision of millionaire owner Kenny Bruce – co-founder of online estate agent Purplebricks – following the club’s promotion to the top flight in 2019.

“This was a new challenge for me and my family,” said the father-of-three. “We were looking to get away from England and this came up.

“I was a hundred per cent in, my wife was a bit worried at the start but as soon as she came over she absolutely loved it, the kids love it here, so it’s probably the best thing we’ve ever done.

“I wanted to come over and play in a league where I could win things instead of being in League Two, League One just floating about at mid-table teams.

“I could see the vision before I signed when I met Kenny and the manager (Tiernan Lynch) and they’ve been true to their word.

“I love it here. People around the town are just really great people. After games we’ll go and have a beer with the fans and it’s just little things like that that make a massive difference.”

Randall was initially tipped for big things by long-reigning Arsenal boss Wenger.

He has no real regrets about his time in north London but concedes his attitude and work ethic perhaps dipped below the required level.

“It’s the best coaching you will get at that age,” said Randall, who remains in contact with former Gunners team-mate Kieran Gibbs from that era.

“Back then, they had unbelievable players that you can learn so much from on a daily basis.

“At a top Premier League club, you’re going to get the best facilities, best training ground, best food and the lower you go, you don’t really get that.

“Probably, if I’m honest, my attitude and maybe my work ethic weren’t up to scratch as the top players are. They are 100 per cent professional and maybe that’s where I let myself down.”

Larne’s greatest European adventure follows two successive Europa Conference League qualifying campaigns, which included a run to the third round in 2021-22.

They will play next week’s second leg against HJK at Cliftonville’s Solitude stadium in Belfast after the synthetic pitch at their Inver Park home failed to satisfy FIFA criteria.

The 32-time Finnish champions have far more experience at this level and even reached the group stage in 1998-99, leading to clashes with Kaiserslautern, Benfica and PSV Eindhoven.

“We feel like on our day we can give anyone a good game,” said Randall. “I don’t think it’s going to be a walk in the park for them.”

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